Technology preserves our stupidities for all to see

Jack Knox
Times Colonist

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Maybe it was drugs. Maybe it was booze. Or maybe it was just the sheer giddiness brought on by a whole week of what in these parts passes for summer weather. ("Why, it was so hot that I had to bring the ice cream in off the back porch.")

Whatever the reason, the young woman in the downtown Victoria nightclub decided it would be a good idea to take off her clothes, all of them. Wouldn't put them back on, either.

This was Sunday night, not long past midnight. The naked woman was maybe 22 years old, tops, obviously in need of some discreet help, or at least a towel.

So, what did the other clubgoers do? They laughed themselves silly, took her picture with their cellphones.

The Times Colonist's Sarah Petrescu was there, was dismayed by the cellphone schadenfreude crowd. "Why are you doing this?" she asked one of the picture-takers.

"It's too funny," was the reply. "I have to post this on Facebook."

Nice to see Victoria show its compassionate side.

It reminded Sarah of one of those movies about mean girls from high school ripping each other apart. Me, I was reminded of the henhouses back home, chickens viciously pecking each other bloody at the first sign of weakness. Never liked those chickens. Glad they didn't have cellphones.

Glad, for that matter, that there weren't cellphone cameras back when I was young and foolish (as opposed to just plain foolish), either. The middle-aged might like to shake their greying heads and make tsk-tsk noises about youngsters today, but it's not the attitudes that have changed, it's the technology.

Remember that time you got snapped up on Baby Duck and passed out in Bill Vander Zalm's rose bushes? No? I do, and I've got the pictures, fading in the back of a photo album. At least, I would have, had I had a camera handy.

This is the difference today. Cellphone cameras are ubiquitous. So are Internet sites on which to post the pictures: Facebook, YouTube, Flickr. Life has become one long episode of Candid Camera: Every time the cops wade in to break up a bar brawl, out come the cameras, eager for a Rodney King moment.

Schoolyard fistfight footage is common. Ditto for drunken behaviour. You can't do anything stupid without it being preserved in digital amber. (Lord, please don't let my death win the $10,000 prize on America's Funniest Home Videos.)

It raises questions about the legal obligations of those who shoot images of people in vulnerable positions, about whether the picture-posters can be held liable. For the most part, the law hasn't kept up to the technology, the courts trying to figure it out as they go along. In Britain, they're currently enthralled with a lawsuit launched by Max Mosley, the multi-millionaire Formula One racing boss who was secretly taped being spanked by several women who were reportedly paid $5,000 for the opportunity. Mosley is suing the News Of The World newspaper, which released the tape along with a story claiming that Mosley was acting out a Nazi-themed fantasy. It's the Nazi claim that has miffed Mosley, the son of infamous British pre-war fascist Sir Oswald Mosley.

If photos like those shot of the woman in the nightclub were posted, B.C. privacy commission David Loukidelis might look favourably on a complaint from the subject. Still, the photographer might try to wriggle through a business-and-charities exemption in the Personal Information Protection Act that allows the collection of information for personal use. And even if the offending material were ordered destroyed, that could be akin to ordering the toothpaste back in the tube. "Once it's on the Internet, it's cached, it's there forever," Loukidelis says.

Which brings us to the moral obligations at play. Prior to going to the nightclub to celebrate a friend's birthday Sunday, Petrescu was one of the speakers at a fundraiser for children and families in Darfur.

She couldn't help but compare the attitude of the people at the charity event with that of those shooting images of the naked woman.

Confronted with starvation in Africa, would the latter group lend a hand, or merely pull out their cellphones and post the pics on Facebook?
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008